From the Chair | Reflections for 2021
03 Jan 2022
Looking back at 2021, it is clear that COVID-19 continued to preoccupy our everyday lives even as we tried to live with it endemically. Like everyone else, we remained vigilant, bracing ourselves for a potential surge of any new variants, or doing our best to help slow the possible spread of such variants in the community.
The Singapore Parliament Secretariat continued to monitor the ongoing situation, keeping abreast of the latest Government public health guidelines and advisories. Safe Management Measures or SMMs, like sitting a few seats apart and wearing masks at all times within the Chamber, are still in effect on Sitting days. With the ready availability of rapid test kits, Members of the House and Parliament staff can now test themselves before Sittings. We have also adapted our processes to best meet our needs. For instance, Divisions – during which the vote of each Member is collected and tabulated – in our Chamber are usually done by Members of Parliament (MPs) voting electronically from their assigned seats. With safe distancing seating, the MPs are no longer at their originally designated seats. So now when Divisions are called, MPs hold up colour-coded voting cards instead – green for “Yes”, red for “No” and yellow for “Abstain”. In addition, all MPs continue to speak behind glass screens and to wipe down the microphones and rostrums after making their speeches, asking their questions or making their replies.
A Division done in October 2019 (i.e. pre-COVID and when SMM did not apply) whereby Members electronically voted from their designated seats in the Chamber.
A Division done in October 2021 whereby Members, now seated apart due to SMM, voted by holding up a colour-coded card indicating their vote.
With these measures and adaptations in place, the essential business of parliamentary proceedings can go on, even as safeguarding the safety of Members and staff remain of utmost importance.
And Parliament’s business indeed went on – and busily so – in 2021. For their first full calendar year since being sworn in back in August 2020, I am heartened by how Members of the 14th Parliament of Singapore had conducted themselves with proper dignity and decorum as they engaged in robust and lively debates on the issues that matter to their constituents and citizens. There had been breadth and depth on a diverse range of issues – from the perennial bread-and-butter ones like jobs and cost of living, to the macro ones that included climate change and sustainability, the continuing importance of Singapore’s free trade agreements, and mitigating threats of foreign interference.
For those interested in numbers, in 2021, MPs raised and had 2,601 Parliamentary Questions addressed, be it orally by the Ministers in the Chamber or via Written Answers. The House passed 39 Bills; took decisions on 12 Substantive Motions; and heard 11 Ministerial Statements on matters of public importance, debating 3 of them. A total of 17 Adjournment Motions were tabled, allowing Members the opportunity to speak at some length on issues they felt passionately about, and for the office-holder of the Ministry in charge of the issues to respond. These Motions were wide-ranging, from issues that included the call to support our local hawkers, to raising awareness of the plight of Singaporeans with rare diseases or mental health concerns. With such a packed agenda on the cards last year, it came as no surprise that we also set the record for the longest sitting we ever had — clocking in at a whopping 13.5 hours, having stretched from 11 am on 14 September, to 12.30 am on 15 September. In fact, two MPs born on these respective dates ushered in their birthdays in the Chamber!
While they might have started a bit later, having been sworn in only in February 2021, the 9 Nominated MPs (NMPs) for the 14th Parliament had also admirably caught up. I urge them to continue to speak up, leverage on their diverse expertise and experiences from their respective sectors, and contribute their fresh perspectives and insights to the parliamentary debates.
The 9 NMPs of the 14th Parliament being sworn in on 1 February 2021.
The Standing Select Committees (SSCs) are an important feature of Parliament’s functions, including our critical and inquisitorial role of scrutinising the State’s finances. Some SSCs for the 14th Parliament also have the leadership and stewardship of Chairs newly appointed to their roles. Based on the first reports of the Public Accounts Committee and the Estimates Committee in 2021, I could see how the MPs’ fresh takes and assessments were especially valuable in a time of exceptional Government measures in response to the pandemic. I look forward to more of such reports by these as well as other SSCs in 2022.
As Members of the House, all MPs enjoy parliamentary privilege. In layman terms, this means that we are immune to prosecution and civil lawsuits for the statements we make in the Chamber so that we may speak freely on matters and issues. Nonetheless, the onus also lies with every MP to apply due diligence and responsibility even as we exercise this privilege. Statements made must be based on facts or well-substantiated information.
The Committee of Privileges (CoP) thus takes any formal complaint about breaches of Privilege seriously, and I, as the Speaker of Parliament, am the Chair of this SSC. The CoP will thoroughly investigate the complaint to uphold the sanctity and integrity of parliamentary privilege. The recent complaint that we looked at – and for which we will be presenting our findings and recommendations to Parliament through our Report in due course – is an important reminder that MPs must not wilfully abuse the immunity and privileges being an MP accords them.
On Parliament’s diplomatic responsibilities, I am glad that these had continued smoothly in 2021 – albeit virtually where applicable due to the ongoing pandemic situation. Highlights of such virtually held events included the Singapore Parliament’s hosting of the 12th ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA) Caucus, and our participation in the 42nd AIPA General Assembly (GA). It is important for the Singapore Parliament to stay plugged in, as now more than ever, ASEAN has to remain united and of one mind in our determination to help our peoples triumph and emerge stronger from the disruptions and challenges that COVID-19 continues to pose. I also caught up virtually with the Speakers from Vietnam and the Republic of Korea.
With SMMs firmly in place, I hosted several Courtesy Calls by newly appointed ambassadors to Singapore – including those from Greece, Ukraine, Australia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE.
Some of the members of Singapore Parliament’s delegation to the virtual AIPA GA in 2021.
I also went on official overseas visits to Tokyo in August 2021 and Rome in October 2021. These were invaluable in deepening relations with our parliamentary counterparts from around the world.
In Tokyo, I had the opportunity to pay a visit to both Houses of its legislature, meeting with the President of the House of Councillors and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. As we discussed global and regional developments, we further reaffirmed the close and longstanding relations of both Singapore and Japan in areas of mutual cooperation. As this trip happened to coincide with the earlier postponed Tokyo 2020 Games, I also relayed Team Singapore’s appreciation for Japan’s warm and gracious hospitality. As President of the Singapore National Olympic Council, I was proud to witness our Team Singapore athletes in action. They did our nation proud with their exemplary sportsmanship, living out the Olympic spirit as they gave it their all despite the challenging circumstances.
With my Japanese counterparts: President of the House of Councillors Santo Akikio, and Vice President of the House of Councillors Ogawa Toshio.
My first visit to Italy in my official capacity was for the Rome G20 Speakers’ meeting hosted by the Italian Parliament. It was a fruitful engagement involving parliamentarians from both G20 and invited non-G20 nations. As a guest country for this event, Singapore was indeed privileged to bear witness to the discussions on how parliaments of the world’s largest economies could contribute towards global recovery from the pandemic, and head towards more equitable, environmentally sustainable, and shared growth patterns.
Representing Singapore at the G20 Speakers’ meeting in Rome.
Our Singapore Parliament Secretariat continued to outreach to the public, seeking to deepen understanding of and to demystify parliamentary procedures and processes. I am glad that our official Parliament social media platforms continued to grow. Over the past year, our Instagram Followers doubled from over 4,000 to over 8,500! We also saw our Facebook community grow by a third, from 10,400 to 13,700 Followers. Parley, our official Parliament mascot, had also proven to be quite a “fan favourite” among our Followers in 2021 due to his appearance in the Tokyo Olympics, cheering on our athletes, featuring as WhatsApp stickers, keychain plushies and even a comics series! The Parley WhatsApp Stickers are free for download at https://go.gov.sg/zufr6u, while the Parley keychain plushies can be gotten by following the Parliament Instagram and participating in our Insta-quizzes. So do follow us now and look out for these exciting chances to have your very own Parley pal! In fact, I heard some buzz that Parley will be making his video debut this year…so watch our Insta-space!
Parley will continue to seize our Followers’ hearts and minds in 2022!
With the packed Parliament calendar of Bills and Motions, we have pushed out regular educational posts on our social media platforms to help explain some Parliamentary processes and procedures, especially to plug knowledge gaps where these arise. January 2021 also saw the introduction of live streaming of Parliament Sittings, which, apart from being in line with global and technological trends, is yet another platform – along with options that include the Hansard, which is the verbatim transcripts of Parliamentary debates - for citizens and stakeholders to directly access and keep current on what the Government and the MPs are debating. Together, these platforms and initiatives are complementary levers in helping the public and our citizens better understand the essential role that Parliament plays in law-making and in keeping the Government accountable for its actions, policies, and finances. We hope these iterative efforts will also enable our stakeholders to better appreciate the complexities and trade-offs that go hand-in-hand with law- and policy-making. These efforts also help to maintain and reinforce public trust and confidence in Parliament and the Parliamentary Process.
This enduring faith and trust in our institutions is especially vital as we tackle and overcome challenges we face as a nation now and in the future. 2021 may have seemed yet another entry in an ongoing journal of disruptions and necessary adjustments. Nonetheless, I am confident that Parliament, Singapore and Singaporeans will remain resilient, steadfast and united in our resolve to eventually emerge stronger together. Let us still stand as one with our frontline and essential workers who continue to fight the good fight. Encourage everyone we know to keep exercising social responsibility. Be up to speed with the latest updates, adhere to all measures, test ourselves regularly and take up vaccinations and boosters when offered.
Happy 2022, stay safe, and may we continue to grow and prosper in all our endeavours!